Dialogue between Hamdan Abdul Majeed and Michael Pinksy
50 Minds for the Next 50. Sustainable Tourism, Sustainable Heritage
Hamdan Abdul Majeed
Managing Director of Think City
Vision for the Next 50
In the Next 50… Quality tourism is valued, one that is rooted in learning and experiencing local culture and heritage, mindful of its carbon footprint and its impact on the local community. In other words, we achieve ‘responsible travelling’.
In the Next 50… Tourists no longer circulate in a ‘bubble’ that offers a contrived and limited understanding of local culture and heritage. The interests of the local inhabitants are prioritized so that heritage sites improve the community and environment.
The dialogue between Hamdan Abdul Majeed and Michael Pinksy focused mainly on how sustainable tourism could benefit local communities. Tourists are generally confined to their ‘bubble’, which is not conducive to engagement with locals or concern for their well-being and leads to contrived experiences of a destination. According to both thinkers, we can move towards sustainable tourism only if we make local interests a priority.
Abdul Majeed warned that Asia in particular has suffered from ‘fast-paced tourism’ and ‘overtourism’, which ignore their carbon footprint and limit interaction with locals. Instead, he said, we must shift towards ‘quality tourism’, one that is mindful of the local environment and promotes authentic cultural experiences. Pinksy also emphasized that investment in tourism must prioritize local infrastructure and improve the lives of the community living around the heritage site.
We are now seeing a resurgence of tourism in a big way. How it has been in the UK, this fast growth in tourism, as compared to before the pandemic?
Certainly Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to explore the culture that's on our doorstep. But British people love taking long-haul flights, for relatively short periods of time. I know people who go to Thailand for five days – so they're travelling for two days and there only for three. How can we think about tourism in a holistic way? Over the last decade or two, we've started to forget or sacrifice the journey for the sake of the destination. Perhaps because here's this kind of ‘bucket list’ culture now. People travel to take a photograph for Instagram. One minute they’re in Abu Dhabi, the next in Malaysia, and the next in Japan, and this is meant to be celebrated? We really need to rethink the whole journey from the minute we walk out of our front door. And maybe we carry on walking or we cycle, or we take a train, but we need to think very sustainably and elegantly about the way we move around. Flights are subsidized and trains certainly are not, and we need infrastructure and policy changes. But we also need people themselves to think ‘Hang on, are those three days in Thailand really worth the pain of stuffed airplanes, delayed flights, quarantine?’ Maybe it's better to go slower, a bit more profoundly into our experiences, rather than just accumulate destinations.
And I think you really know about this, Hamdan. About creating places people not only want to visit, but want to live in.
Michael, you’ve nailed it right on the head. Why do we travel, and why have we gone into this binge environment of travelling in the last two decades? The consequence is overtourism, the issue highlighted by UNESCO. We see, particularly in Asia, what they call the ‘far-fast paced tourism’, people who come in and out and the impact it has on the local environment. Local destinations have been put under extreme pressure and some sites have been compromised, by overtourism. These numbers are quite staggering: more than a 300% increase in tourism arrivals. That explosion has been fueled further by availability of cheap travel. But we have not really thought about the cost of travel, most importantly its impact on the local environment.
One key thing we learned at Think City was to take an approach to tourism in which we asked ‘Why don't we focus on doing what is most important for the local people?’ This means focusing a lot more on local improvement programmes, on strengthening local culture, enhancing local consumption of spaces and places, and building from there. One thing we realized early on, more and more people are looking for authentic experiences; as the data shows, more than 40% of people are travelling now because of culture. And people want genuine cultures, not something contrived. In most instances, we’ve seen a lot of growth in tourism that has people flying into beach resorts or theme parks or urban centres. The tourists arrive at the airport, are zoomed into these ‘bubbles’ where they stay until they head back. In the end, there's very little interaction with the local environments. The future model of a more sustainable tourism will have to be driven a lot more by local improvement programmes and focusing on the lives of local people, enhancing livelihoods and developing sustainability.
The question then becomes how can we actually create places that people want to live in, places where we can build positive symbiotic relationships, particularly regarding strengthening public spaces, tourism, and heritage?
I think there's been a progressive orientation, maybe through the capitalist machine, and we've moved away from public space to private space. And we have ‘destination bubbles’ and ‘travel bubbles’. What happens when you develop a heritage site? You really need to prioritize that it’s not just the site that improves the public community or the environment, but also the way of getting there and back that adds to the local infrastructure and aids the people who live there to move around. So really you arrive at a destination, you get on a local bus with local people and you go to whatever site you want.
And that way you experience the local weather, the local smells, the local songs, conversation, culture. You're not brought into this kind of exclusive VIP world of a concierge, taxi or minibus bringing you where you are. It's really important that investment goes into the local infrastructure and improves the place around the heritage site.
What you're saying is you don't want to borrow the landscape for a few days and then hand it back whenever you want. To be more immersive, more engaging and create an environment where there’s a lot more interaction between the locals and the visitors, and maybe even creating meaningful relationships along the way.
Exactly. This is all about creating places for the local people that are already incredibly rich in terms of culture: places that are safe, healthy, without bad air pollution, places that are really lively, so that people would want to immerse themselves in that local environment all the way from arriving to seeing every cultural artefact of that space. And those things are not easily captured in an Instagram feed, and they're not on a bucket list either. You have this mentality both ways around, you know: you have lots of people from the UK going to Asia and Africa with their bucket list, and likewise, lots of people from India, China and Southeast Asia coming to the UK with their bucket list – you can hardly walk in Cambridge because of them! At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, what is a really pleasurable experience for me? And people are willing to sacrifice that for the single photographic image or ticking things off the list.
In my own interaction with tourists, I've seen people who come to the same destination year in and year out, and it's wonderful to see them because they've created a relationship and are here for extended periods of time and quite immersed in the local environments and part of the local community. The question: How do you shift towards a tourism that is discerning and not contrived? Not only driven by profit, but has purpose? And more importantly, we also want to ensure we are managing footprints, because tourism is creating externalities and we need to ensure we don't privatize the profits and socialize the loss – not to create an environment where tourism’s externalities weigh on the local population, in terms of pollution, waste and congestion. The true cost of tourism needs to be seen in the larger context of the impact that it creates. The cost benefits need to be understood more dynamically.
The more I see how tourism is moving, the more I think the role of culture has to be strengthened. There is this ‘authentic offering’ that can provide the experience of the spirit of place that will enhance ‘connection to the local’. The more that happens, the more we could shift from what I call the ‘contract bubbles’ towards more ‘local bubbles’ to strengthen local socio-economic outcomes. What's your view on this?
We see with Covid-19 how robust some systems are and how fragile others are. In London, for example, most of the museums are free and very accessible to the local community. So when people couldn’t travel, the museums were full of local people. When you've got a contrived ‘bubble’ that's only for people who are part of another economic system – for example, their currency is worth a lot more – when people can't travel, the whole system collapses. So to be robust, the cultural offer has to be as appropriate for local people as it is for international visitors.
I concur with you that we need to shift from building for tourists and focus on building for locals – and what we do for the locals matters for the tourist. I think that shift of mindset is important, especially if you're going to build a more sustainable and resilient sector. Because as we have seen with Covid-19, when the tourists disappear, it cripples the sector. We have seen a long-lasting impact. It's important to build around a local proposition.
As an artist and cultural producer myself, I make artworks that are fairly large scale and nomadic. I tour them around the world so people don't need to travel. And obviously we now have a digital economy where we can see things digitally, but also we do need to think about how we move artefacts around the world so people don't need to travel to see them. That's another aspect. I certainly want people to experience my work without the massive carbon footprint of coming to London, for example.
That’s going to be a big challenge – finding the balance between people needing to travel to see, and to use digital technology to get that immersive experience. With technology a lot of things are becoming possible. With augmented reality or virtual reality, you can visit museums online. Especially during the pandemic, we saw these technologies become relevant and be used to allow cultural sites and museums to continue to engage with their audiences.
But there's also a distinction when you are physically in a space, something that is able to connect you with the people in a place. That's quite unique. And, as you said earlier, that can only happen in an environment where people can step back and breathe the air and not have a bucket list mentality and run around like headless chickens. I think the more tourism we have, the more we need to shift towards quality tourism – tourism rooted in value systems of learning and experiencing, and more importantly, a tourism that will reduce its footprint. And we need to be mindful. We need responsible travelling to prevail so that we do not inflict negative externalities on the societies we are visiting.
A lot of this is because people feel safe in the ‘bubble.’ They want to bring the bubble of their culture with them to experience other cultures. But obviously there's a dichotomy there, and if you really want to experience other cultures, you need to be in that other culture and work out how to get from A to B. You need to try and understand some of the language, to eat the cuisine, to have conversations. And that's where the real pleasure of travelling is and where the real building of knowledge and empathy with other cultures comes from, which is really the whole reason for travel.
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Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.